The first time I swam I was three. My pudgy fingers reached forward in a stroke I barely knew, wrapped in salt water, happier than I had ever been. My parents pulled me from the water hours later but I never really left. Most teenagers slept in, but I went back to the water every day at four in the morning and four in the afternoon. Swim team captain, champion swimmer, the water is my home. It makes the doctor’s words hard to take.
“No swimming until we take out the tubes.”
Thanks to the ear infections I’ve spent weeks listening to muffled, unclear speech. His words boom into me. I put my hands over my ears, trying to block the sound. “So loud.”
“A side effect of the tubes, everything is two decibels louder. You’ll get used to it.”
I start to hear the whispers in math class. They follow me to history, scratches of sound, like someone talking behind you or in the hall. I haven’t gotten used to the tubes. Chewing blocks out every sound. Running makes my breath as loud as a rock concert. But when I’m not doing that, when I’m sitting or reading the whispers come back. Frustrated, I say what I’d been saying for almost two months.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you.” Every time I say it, people speak louder and slower, a look of pity on their face for the seventeen year old who acts like an old man. The whispers stop. A bliss of relative quiet falls over me. I hear the noise of my teeth rubbing together, the sound of locks clicking open on lockers, and a thousand conversations in the hall but I can’t hear any whispers.
They come back. This time I understood them.
You’re useless. Nothing. Nobody.
“No, I’m not.” My response startles my lab partner, who raises an eyebrow before going back to the experiment.
Then who are you? What can you do?
“I’m a swimmer.”
“Yeah, sure you are, dude.” My lab partner smiles. “Best in the state in the 50 meter. Everyone knows that.”
But the whispers say “A swimmer who can’t swim. You’re nothing.”
They’re wrong. It stings anyway. They keep it up all day. I’m nothing, useless, I’ll never get in the water again. They’re wrong and I don’t believe them, but the more I hear, the more I think about it. If I’m not a swimmer, if this thing with my ears doesn’t get better, who am I? When I couldn’t hear the gun, I started from the block just a second after the other swimmers. Not enough to hurt me in meets but enough that I couldn’t get my best time. I haven’t set any records, haven’t seen any improvements since the infection started.
And you’ll never set any records again.
I know the whispers lie, but it’s hard to hear them, over and over again, and not start to wonder if they’re right.
On the third day I can’t take it anymore. Every hallway, every classroom, every where I go in the school I hear them. Over and over again, repeating the same terrible lies. (I’m sure they’re lies. Really. Except what if they’re not?) The whispers have me half convinced. I break my word to my parents and head for the deserted pool. There, with ear plugs and water between us, I don’t hear them. But I can’t swim forever. Two hours in my arms burn. I’ll get caught for cutting class soon. Does it matter? If the whispers are right, nothing matters. I swim another few laps before I get out. The whispers start again in the locker room.
I’m not going crazy and the weekend proves it. Two days away from school, and I don’t hear them. I hear the water in my mouth and the rustle of the newspaper when I fold it. It should be a gift but the only thing I’m grateful for is getting away from the whispers. On Monday-
“Doesn’t matter if you hear us. It’s still the truth. You might as well kill yourself.”
For a second, just a split second, I think about taking that advice. How I might do it, how it would make people feel. Instead I add lying to cutting class and call the doctor’s office. I pretend to be my Dad. The whispers tell me I’ll never be as good as he was, never have it together the way he does. I talk over them, asking the receptionist to change my appointment. She gets me in that afternoon, and when I check in I lie some more about why he isn’t with me. I’m shocked it works. I remember what the whispers said.
There’s a loud pop when the tubes come out, a bright pain that radiates down my jaw. Pop and the world goes quiet.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” The doctor smiles.
“It was wonderful.”
He tells me a lot of things, but I’m focused on how I can’t hear the air coming through the vent anymore. There’s only one class left in the afternoon, and I might as well miss it, but I go back anyway. The whispers are gone. I walk the halls, check the locker room. Nothing. I’m in the auditorium back stage when the drama club starts to file in. I can hear them but nothing else, no lies, no threats.
Are they there, still trying? Still talking to me? Just in case I tell them, “Doesn’t matter if you’re there. I don’t have to listen to you anymore.”
A movement behind me makes me jump. I would’ve heard it a few hours ago, but now the girl surprises me. Pale, tired, she looks half dead with dark circles under her eyes. “You hear them? The whispers?”